Norfolk, Virginia: A Bustling Port Full of Fun Things to Do

The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk Virginia.
The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk Virginia.

Fun on the Water in the Nautical, Naval City of Norfolk

By Jean Spoljaric

The decision to visit Norfolk for the weekend was an easy one for me. It’s just a hop, skip and jump from JFK to picturesque coastal Virginia, home to the world’s largest naval base, Naval Station Norfolk.

The battleship Wisconsin, docked permanently in Norfolk VA. This view is from a kayak.
The battleship USS Wisconsin docked permanently in Norfolk VA. This view is from a kayak. photos by Jean Spoljaric.

You can visit the naval base, home to 75 ships and 134 aircraft with over 100,000 flight operations per year. That’s an average of 275 flights per day, or about six every minute.

So, as my flight prepared for landing, I kept my eyes peeled out the window for action in the sky. I wasn’t disappointed as I saw fighter jets zooming in the distance.

Elvis Alive and Well in Norfolk

When my plane landed in Norfolk, I made my way toward the airport exit to see a large African American man with a big smile holding a welcome sign with my name on it.

“Welcome to Norfolk! My name is Elvis and I’ll be your driver,” he bellowed. Well, all-righty then! I was having fun already!

He told me his mama was a big fan of the king and named him after the legend. My first impression of Norfolk made me feel right at home. I knew I was in for a great weekend!

As Elvis drove me into the city, I started to think of my other first impression. While looking for zooming jets, I was amazed by the sight of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel. The bridge was built in 1964 and was selected as one of the ‘Seven Engineering Wonders of The World’.

It measures 17.6 miles from shore to shore and consists of more than 12 miles of trestled roadway and two mile-long tunnels that seem to virtually disappear into the middle of the bay. Add in two bridges and four man-made islands and the total length extends to 23 miles. Despite its length, it costs just $16 to cross it.

Mermaids and Wine Tasting; Perfect Together

Along the route to my hotel, I noticed statues of mermaids displayed throughout the city. The fanciful mermaids are designed by local artists and located at various businesses and public parks in downtown Norfolk. Then they are auctioned off to raise money for the Hampton Roads Arts Organization.

Mermaid in Norfolk, part of a city-wide art project throughout the city.
Mermaid in Norfolk, part of a city-wide art project throughout the city.

The roadside mermaids add a sense of style to Norfolk as some are decked out in glitter, some are designed in mosaic glass, and even one is tie-dyed. Some are funny, such as the one that’s decorated in chocolate with a bite taken out of her tail!

Unlike the legend of sirens of years past who were rumored to cause shipwrecks, Norfolk’s mermaids welcome ships and people of all shapes and sizes to their port.

I was lucky enough to be in Norfolk for the 24th Annual Town Point Virginia Wine Festival. The Town Point Park, home to several of the city’s mermaids, is located on the waterfront in downtown Norfolk and is host to the state’s largest outdoor wine festival.

It features more than 30 Virginia wineries offering wines by the glass or the bottle. In between the tasting, you can cleanse your palette with all sorts of gourmet treats.

Scrumptious seafood, fresh fruit, international cheeses, salads, baked bread, and fabulous desserts are among the offerings and there is continuous live music. Thousands of people were in attendance and the crowd was friendly and enthusiastic. It was a beautiful day spent by the water and a great festival not to be missed.

Segway: More Fun than Riding a Bike

Glassblowing at the Chrysler Museum, Norfolk.
Glassblowing at the Chrysler Museum of the Arts in Norfolk.

While in Norfolk, I took a Segway tour through the historic downtown area and the Cannonball Trail. Once I got the balancing part down and got past my hidden fear of careening out of control, I was good to go.

I ‘Segwayed’ past Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church to see the famous Revolutionary War cannonball that was fired in 1776. It’s still lodged in the top cornerstone of the historic building.

Norfolk has many waterfront shops, excellent restaurants, and engaging bars to choose from and there is an excellent selection of museums. Norfolk truly has something for everyone. And, as we were in the south, there is the warm southern hospitality; always friendly and welcoming.

Glass Blowing and the ‘Glory Hole’

I took a sneak peek preview of the brand new glass studio at the Chrysler Museum of the Arts. It officially opened to the public in 2011 and the glass studio is sure to be a winner with locals as well as tourists.

After a worldwide search for a curator for the glass blowing studio, the directors hired the very beautiful and talented conceptual artist, Charlotte Potter.

Potter comes from a family of extremely talented artists. Her dad, Sparky, is most famous for his creative artwork for the Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream’s three-dimensional wooden signs and Charlotte’s mom, Peggy, designs high-end hand painted wooden bowls.

It was exciting for me to learn that Charlotte’s sister is none other than the sexiest ‘rocker chic’ ever, Grace Potter, of Grace Potter and The Nocturnals. Charlotte’s talent goes beyond her 30 years as evidenced by the newly handcrafted, one of a kind, fused glass earrings she designed and I wear often.

The author enjoying a kayaking trip in Norfolk.
The author enjoying a kayaking trip in Norfolk.

The ‘Glory Hole’ is the hottest furnace at the studio, with a temperature that reaches 2,050 degrees Fahrenheit and is as hot as molten lava. The air is warm from the high temperature and the hiss of the fire fills the space with white noise.

Charlotte said that people love the relaxing space and stop by every day with a bag lunch to hang out and watch the art of the glass blowers.

The studio is dedicated to teaching the art of glass blowing and they offer everything from school field trips to weekend retreats. I recommend the ‘two-hour teaser’ for tourists of all ages.

Head to the glass studio early on your vacation because it takes a day for your artwork to cool. Also, check out the ‘Wednesday Fun Night’ where, for only $15, you can create a small piece of art that will be a lasting memento of Norfolk.

Kayaking Fun

Norfolk is centered on the Port of Hampton Roads, one of the largest, naturally deep, ice-free harbors in the world. You can see tugs, barges, sailboats, navy ships, commercial vessels, and even a few kayaks moving in and out of the port through the Elizabeth River.

I checked out the kayaking and got to see the landscape up close. Among the businesses located here is the headquarters of PETA where several happy dogs were running and playing at their very own public ‘doggy park’.

Aboard the American Rover, a sailing vessel that plys the waters off Norfolk.
Aboard the American Rover, a sailing vessel that plies the waters off Norfolk.

I passed by the I USS Battleship Wisconsin on my kayak. Nothing prepared me for the massive size of the ship, nicknamed the ‘Whisky.’ I was dwarfed and chilled by the mighty gray shadow that she cast.

The 887.2-foot battleship was known as one of the fastest battleships in the US fleet. She could reach speeds of 28 knots (32 mph) and earned six battle stars.

She fired the first four missiles in Operation Desert Storm back in 1993. Now, the mighty ship is retired as a museum ship at Nauticus, the Naval Museum in Norfolk’s safe harbor.

I was so impressed by the big grey girl that later that day I toured the ship from above. I highly recommend checking out The USS Wisconsin, as nothing will prepare you for the massive size of this battleship and seeing it up close is a moving experience.

Ride The Tide

Norfolk’s light rail system, The Tide, is an efficient and affordable way to get around the city. You can get from downtown Norfolk to the artsy and historic Ghent area in less than 15 minutes. (As wonderful as it is, it would be even greater if the rail continued all the way to the beach).

A day pass is only $3.50 and the train is super clean and convenient. The Tide operates every 10 minutes during peak hours and every 15 minutes during off-peak hours, so you’ll never have to
wait very long to ‘Ride the Tide’.

Norfolk by Water

Check out the American Rover if you’re in the mood for a relaxing harbor cruise. She’s a 135’ sailing schooner that holds 150 passengers. The design was inspired by a 19th-century cargo schooner, yet she offers all the modern amenities to assure you a comfortable cruise. I went out on a brunch cruise, sipping mimosas, and enjoying a leisurely sail aboard the tri-masted ship.

With about 98 feet of topside deck space and a climate controlled lower deck with a cocktail lounge and real flushing toilets (not heads), you can easily find a place on the boat to be happy. It was a beautiful morning for a sail and I chose to stay up top where the air was crisp and I could ‘touch’ the blue sky.

To Hookah or Not to Hookah?

Enjoy a hookah at Nazef, in Norfolk.
Enjoy a hookah at Nazef, in Norfolk.

If you’re looking for a really unique way to spend the evening, locate a ‘Hookah Bar.’ If you’re new to ‘Hookah’, it’s a fun, legal, social, and relaxing way to smoke a water pipe with tobacco in public.

Paired with fabulous Greek and Mediterranean style food and exciting belly dancers, you can’t go wrong. If you’re up for the adventure, I recommend ‘Nazef Char Grill and Hookah’ on Colley Avenue in the Ghent area.

I’m told that the Mediterranean culture is very fond of the social benefits of ‘Hookah’ in the same way that the British enjoy their ‘tea-time’.

Many times, in looking for a weekend activity, we find a one-dimensional event where enthusiasm dies a quiet death. Not so in Norfolk! I had a long and enjoyable weekend full of exciting activities with enthusiastic and creative people who love where they live.

It was a blast! And, for those in the East, Norfolk’s an easy hop, skip, and jump to living well for the weekend.

Details on Visiting Norfolk

Anyone can hail a taxi, but Orange Peel is a great way to get around! Be sure to say hello to Elvis if you see him! I highly recommend Charles for a driver.

His warm, southern hospitality was so nice and his fun personality made the trip a lasting memory that I will cherish for years to come. All the staff at Orange Peel go above and beyond to make your stay in Norfolk a special one.

The Tazewell Hotel, recommended by our writer, in Norfolk, VA.
The Tazewell Hotel, recommended by our writer, in Norfolk, VA.


The Tazewell is located in the heart of Downtown Norfolk’s Theater, Entertainment, and Historic Business Districts. Convenient to I-264, the hotel is within a short walking distance to most all area attractions.

The Tazewell is a great old hotel in the heart of Granby Street. Free in-room Internet.

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